E.M. Forster famously drew the distinction between what I will call event and story (Forster himself used different terms). According to Forster, event is "King dies, then queen dies," whereas story is "King dies, then queen dies of heartbreak." Forster was distinguishing between sequence and consequence, and suggesting that for a story to succeed, mere sequence isn't sufficient. In a twist on Forster, the writer Michelle Wildgen has suggested that story is "King dies, then queen killed herself out of grief." For Wildgen, a story needs not just consequence (the king's death causes the queen's death), but agency (the queen takes her own life).
I recently thought of these distinctions because every spring I read 500 MFA applications, and throughout the year, I read countless stories by talented graduate students. And if there's one thing my students struggle with above all else, it's narrative—specifically, consequence and agency. Their stories are well-written and sensitively rendered, but too often the scenes feel strung together without sufficient purpose. Certain themes and images repeat, but the reader has no sense of why one scene leads to the next. And the protagonists in these stories are simply watchers. They observe, often quite astutely, the characters that orbit around them and the world that these characters inhabit, but that's all they do. They don't act, in other words. They don't make choices, when choice, or moral agency, is at the heart of good fiction.
For a story to work, there needs to be both consequence and agency, and one way to tell whether your story is succeeding in this regard is to ask yourself a couple of questions. First, type your scenes out on separate sheets of paper so that it's possible to scramble them. (The writer Bret Anthony Johnston suggests something similar in his terrific book of writing exercise, Naming the World.) Can you scramble them? You shouldn't be able to. In other words, your story should be such that you can't reorder the scenes without doing serious damage to your story. If you can reorder them, then the odds are your story isn't driven sufficiently by consequence. Second, ask yourself what would happen if you yanked your protagonist out of the story. If the only thing the story would lose was your protagonist's observations (if, in other words, the story's action would be unimpeded by the removal of your central character), then the odds are there's insufficient agency in your story.
In a story that's working, the protagonist is central to the narrative. He's making choices (often unwise, foolish choices), and those choices help drive the story forward. And the engine that propels the story purrs so softly, you barely even notice it. In that sense, when a writer nails her story, it feels as if the story has written itself. As Flannery O'Connor said, a good ending is both surprising and inevitable. That's true not just of endings but of everything that happens in a story. The writer sets things in motion and then gets out of the way.